Author, Shirley Cherry, shares the story behind her fabulous new children’s book set in The Gambia, Musa and the Incredibirds.
The Inspiration behind Musa and the Incredibirds
I was inspired to write the book after visiting The Gambia, just before Christmas last year on a bird watching trip. My husband and I stayed initially in Banjul. Gambian life is colourful and vibrant. Bright fabrics are worn by the women, bustling street markets sell all manner of produce from fruit and vegetables to livestock and household utensils, furniture and firewood.
Whilst there we paid a visit to the Stepping Stones Nursery in Serrekunda run by the African Oyster Trust,, a small West Midlands based charity. I’d heard about the Trust beforehand and was keen to see their work. We were met by a sea of smiling faces. Stepping Stones is clearly a happy place to be. It boasts fresh water, purpose-built school rooms, a good play area, clean loos, and dedicated staff all run on voluntary donations. A percentage of the proceeds from my book are going to support them.
Image credit: Chris Packham
Next, we headed up-country to see more wonderful birds. They blew me away with their amazing colours and plumage. I was inspired by the bird guide who took us around. His name was Musa and he was brought up by his grandmother and taken into the fields every day which is where he learnt his field craft.
We shared the highway with donkeys and mules pulling carts, with minibuses crammed with locals, their roofs piled high with luggage. The Gambia is a poor country with a growing population, approximately half its population is under 25. This puts pressure on the environment for more food and more firewood (much cooking in the countryside is still over open fires). On our travels we saw mahogany trees that had been chopped down and were loaded on to trucks. Musa told us that this was a recurring theme, even though it is supposed to be illegal.
My book was born out of a concern for the birds and their disappearing habitats. I thought if I could write a book about the incredible African birds for children to enjoy, it might encourage them to cherish the birds and so help to preserve them for future generations to enjoy. Despite the increasing interest in eco-tourism, the wildlife is often taken for granted. Habitats are under threat as never before – not just in The Gambia but all over the world.
I really wanted to tell children about the incredible African birds, so they can come to know and love them.
“If we take care of the birds we will take care of most of the problems in the world.” National Geographic magazine – January 2018.
My aim is to engage the children’s imaginations, for them to come to know and love the birds just like Musa in the story, wherever they may live. But I hope that at least some copies of my book reach Gambian children as they will be the country’s decision-makers of tomorrow.
The Story of Musa and the Incredibirds
The story is about Musa, a young Gambian boy who was brought up by his grandmother. He helps her in the fields and she inspires him with her love of birds. The birds become Musa’s friends and take him under their wings. He learns all about them and discovers he has an unusual gift – he can talk to the birds and they talk back to him. They invite him to be a judge at their Incredibirds Talent Show. There are eight different acts which each compete with varying degrees of ability and hilarity for the “Incredibirds” trophy. But there is a surprising end to the story, a dramatic twist in the tail feathers, so you will need to read it to find out what happens.
My illustrations are faithful to the birds’ real plumage, their shapes and relative sizes. The birds are natural characters in their own right. Take for example the Bearded Barbit with his big black bushy eyebrows and beard, his bulbous beak and bright red bib – just looking at him makes you smile. He’s one part of a comical duo as he partners Red Cheeked Cordon Bleu to become ‘a couple of colourful clowns.’ Then there’s the Black Heron, also known as the Umbrella Bird. He is a magician who astonishes the audience with is sleight of wing magic: “Ruffle my feathers and spread my wings,” he says. “See what my umbrella brings.”
Image credit: Chris Packham
New book aimed at primary school children
The story is aimed at children of primary school age, from five to 11 years. It can be read to younger children helped by the illustrations, while more confident readers can read it for themselves. I’ve tried to make the book educational as well as engaging. There are some interesting facts and figures at the back, as well as a glossary of some of the ornithological terms. I have read the book to a number of primary schools local to me. The children enjoyed the book and nominated their favourite birds. They all picked different characters. Some like the flamingos, while others like the naughty eagle and the rapping raven.
Musa and the Incredibirds Reviews
"I absolutely loved the book. Musa is an amazing character because of his special ability. It's made me learn a lot more about the different birds from The Gambia. It was so exciting and fun. The pictures were wonderful and so colourful. I would love to read the second book, if there is one!" Otto Clugston, aged 9 years
“I love the illustrations and it is a good mix of fact and fiction. It could be used as part of curriculum topics about geography, literacy, science, art and possibly even music and dance.” Alison Sayer, Primary School Teacher.
"This is a lovely story with lots of information and exciting facts. My 8 year old granddaughter read it and really enjoyed it, she read it a couple of times and talked a lot about the different types of birds and whether any matched our European/Western birds." Gill Currier, Tysoe Children's Group.
Children’s workshops bring Musa and the Incredibirds to life
Having written the book, I then had the idea of turning it into a workshop for children. I thought it would be fun to bring the book ‘Musa and the Incredibirds Talent Show’ to life by adding a bit of drama, dance and music. The workshop ran every morning for a week at St Mary’s Church in Tysoe and finished with a performance for friends and families.
The workshop activities included mask-making, learning about African birds, hearing stories and learning dance routines and the Incredibirds group song. There was also a visit from the local Fir Tree Falconry which gave the children the chance to get up close and personal with a harris hawk, a kestrel and two owls. The children who participated had great fun.
Joel Smith, aged 9, said “he liked the costumes and the falconry”, Eliza Gray, aged 8, “really liked the drama and the arts and crafts,” while Monty Atkinson, aged 4, enjoyed “making the masks and looking at the birds.”
We had 28 children join us, with ages ranging from four to 11 years, some older siblings and adults made up the rest of the cast. An audience of over 80 people was enchanted by the antics of a ballet dancing Flamingo, corps de ballet Stilts, tumbling Hooded Vultures, Performing Parakeets and more, all dressed in fine plumage and in a colourful setting. The performance raised £700 for the African Oyster Trust to support their work in The Gambia. All in all, it was a hooting, trilling and tweeting experience. Great fun! I’d love to do it all over again.
Incredibirds – the series
My plan is to develop the “Incredibirds” theme in The Gambia by looking at other specific habitats where the birds live i.e. aquatic birds and arboreal species. The next book (which is already underway) is called 'Musa and the Diving Competition.' You can expect to see an Osprey or two! The beauty of the Incredibirds concept is that it has an international appeal. As far as birds are concerned it is ONE WORLD. Birds are shared – nature sees no national boundaries. They will always go to where the habitat is best for them, or tragically, as is increasingly the case, they will become extinct if the habitats cease to exist.”
Spreading the conservation message in The Gambia
I would love to share the story and workshop with schools in Africa to spread the message of conservation. If anyone is interested in helping make this ambition take flight I would be delighted to hear from you.
How to get your copy
If you would like to purchase a copy of Shirley’s book they cost £9.99 plus post and packing, Orders can be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org